WE’RE ALL GOING TO LOOK LIKE IDIOTS, BUT DAMN IT’LL BE FUN!

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Impossible Rube Goldberg machine cleverly breaks the concept of reality

 

Impossible Rube Goldberg machine cleverly breaks the concept of reality

When you live in the carefully edited Vine world of magic and wizardry and spells and sorcery, you can make anything happen. Zach King is the master of flipping the construct of reality on its head and transforming things into something entirely different. Take this Rube Goldberg machine that starts out normally and then gets weird right before your eyes.

Easter eggs become hopping toy chicks, Red Bull becomes connect four pieces, Rubik’s cubes can break down into individual pieces and more. If you blink anytime during the video of King’s fanciful Rube Goldberg machine below, you’ll miss all the fun.

This Man is a Vine Wizard

This Vine compilation video of magic tricks and sorcery is so much fun

Zach King, the magic wizard of Vine. He’ll snatch cats out of computer screens, turn Rubik’s Cubes into candy, fly through beds and doors, jump out of his clothes, magically change colors of any object and more. It’s the most entertaining use of the 6 second medium because it’s just short enough to make me feel like magic can be real.

The time limitation is perfect because King quickly sets up and executes a simple trick on you and then moves onto a completely different one before you can question what just happened. It’s mindless fun.

This Vine compilation video of magic tricks and sorcery is so much fun

This Vine compilation video of magic tricks and sorcery is so much fun

Here’s the same picture taken with every iPhone that has existed

Here's the same picture taken with every iPhone that has existed

Though the new iPhone is called the iPhone 6, we’re actually on the 8th generation of iPhone that has existed. But who cares about that. Let’s just see how much the camera—maybe the most important feature on the iPhone after messaging—has improved over those 8 generations. Hint: a lot.

Lisa Bettany compared the new iPhone 6 camera to those of the iPhone 5S, iPhone 5, iPhone 4S, iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 3G and original iPhone by taking the same shot on each. The particular shot above shows the camera’s performance when backlit. You can definitely see the difference when you zoom up close.

Here’s a portrait comparison:

Here's the same picture taken with every iPhone that has existed

And a very impressive lowlight:

Here's the same picture taken with every iPhone that has existed

You can see the comparison in much more detail here. In short: it gets better. Duh. But it’s impressive to see by how much. Things might look good from afar on all of them but the cameras of the early iPhones were pathetic shooters. Things that used to be unusable can actually be considered stunning now and what worked in perfect conditions, works even better now.

Watch the guts of a DSLR camera in action at 10,000 frames per second

Watch the guts of a DSLR camera in action at 10,000 frames per second

The Slow Mo Guys got a 10,000-fps high resolution camera and pointed it into the guts of a DSLR camera shooting photos at 1/8000th of a second. It’s amazing to see how much vibration there is when the mirror and diaphragm move.


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12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

We humans are doing a bang-up job of messing up our home planet. But who’s to say we can’t go on to screw things up elsewhere? Here, not listed in any particular order, are 12 unintentional ways we could do some serious damage to our Solar System, too.

Wild speculation ahead…

Above: We could cause some serious damage with a Shkadov Thruster (see #7). Credit: L. Blaszkiewicz/CC.

1) A Particle Accelerator Disaster

By accidentally unleashing exotic forms of matter from particle accelerators, we run the risk of annihilating the entire solar system.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Prior to the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, some scientists worried that collisions created by the highly energetic accelerator might spawn such nasties like vacuum bubbles, magnetic monopoles, microscopic black holes, or strangelets (a.k.a. “strange matter” — a hypothetical form of matter similar to conventional nuclei, but also containing many of the heavier strange quarks). These concerns were condemned by the scientific community as “rubbish” and nothing more than rumors spread by “unqualified people seeking sensation or publicity.” Moreover, a 2011 report published by the LHC Safety Assessment Group concluded that the collisions presented no danger.

Anders Sandberg, a research fellow who works out of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, agrees that a particle accelerator disaster is unlikely, but warns that if strangelets were to be somehow unleashed, “it would be bad.” As he explained to io9:

Converting even a planet like Mars to strange matter would release a fraction of the rest mass as radiation (plus perhaps splatter strangelets). Assuming a conversion acting on a hour timescale and releasing just 0.1% as radiation gives a mean luminosity of 1.59*10^34 W, or about 42 million times the sun. Most of which would be hard gamma rays.

Ouch. Obviously, the LHC is incapable of producing strange matter, but perhaps some future experiment, either on Earth or in space, could produce the stuff. It’s hypothesized, for example, that strange matter exists at high pressure inside neutron stars. Should we artificially create those conditions, it could end the show real quick. (Image credit: The Core.)

2) A Stellar Engineering Project Gone Horribly Wrong

We could also wreck the Solar System by severely damaging or altering the Sun during a stellar engineering project, or by screwing up planetary dynamics in the process.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Some futurists speculate that future humans (or our posthuman descendants) may choose to embark upon any number of stellar engineering projects, including stellar husbandry. Writing in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, David Criswell from the University of Houston described stellar husbandry as the effort to control the evolution and properties of stars, including attempts to prolong their lifespans, extract material, or create new stars. To make a star burn less rapidly, and thus last longer, future stellar engineers would work to remove its excess mass (big stars expend fuel faster).

But the potential for a catastrophe is significant. Like plans to engage in geoengineering projects here on Earth, stellar engineering projects could result in any number of unforeseen consequences, or instigate uncontrollable cascade effects. For example, efforts to remove the Sun’s mass could create bizarre and dangerous flaring effects, or result in a life-threatening decrease in luminosity. It could also have a pronounced effect on planetary orbits. ( Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC)

3) A Failed Attempt to Stellify Jupiter

Some thought has been given to the prospect of turning Jupiter into a kind of artificial star. But in the attempt to do so, we could destroy Jupiter itself and wipe out life on Earth.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Jupiter transforming into the Lucifer star in 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Writing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, astrophysicist Martyn Fogg proposed that we stellify Jupiter as a first step to terraforming the Galilean satellites. To do so, future humans would seed Jupiter with a tiny primordial black hole. The black hole would have to engineered perfectly so that it not fall outside the bounds of the Eddington limit (an equilibrium point between the outward force of radiation and the inward force of gravity). According to Fogg, this would produce “energy sufficient to create effective temperatures on Europa and Ganymede that would be similar to the values on Earth and Mars, respectively.”

Lovely, except for what would happen if things go askew. As Sandberg told io9, it would work fine at first — but the black hole could grow and eventually absorb Jupiter in a burst of radiation that would sterilize the entire Solar System. With life extinguished and Jupiter sucked up into a black hole, our neighborhood would be a complete mess.

4) Screwing Up the Orbital Dynamics of the Planets

Should we start to mess around with the location and mass of planets or other celestial bodies, we run the risk of upsetting the Solar System’s delicate orbital balance.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Indeed, the orbital dynamics in our Solar System are surprisingly fragile. It has been estimated than even the slightest perturbation could result in chaotic and even potentially dangerous orbital motions. The reason for this is that planets are subject to resonances, which is what happens when any two periods assume a simple numerical ratio (e.g., Neptune and Pluto are in a 3:2 orbital resonance, as Pluto completes two orbits for every three orbits of Neptune).

The result is that two orbiting bodies can influence each other even when they’re quite distant. Regular close encounters can result in the smaller object getting destabilized and cleared right out of its original orbit — and even the Solar System altogether!

Looking to the future, such chaotic resonances could happen naturally, or we could instigate them by fidgeting around with the Sun and planets. As already noted, there’s the potential for stellar engineering. The prospect of moving Mars into the habitable zone, which could be done by decaying its orbit with asteroids, could likewise upset the orbital balance. Alternately, if we build a Dyson Sphere using material extracted from Mercury and/or Venus, we could alter orbital dynamics in a very profound and dangerous way. It could result in Mercury (or what’s left of it) being tossed from the Solar System, or Earth having an uncomfortably close encounter — or even a collision — with a large object like Mars. (Illustration: Hagai Perets.)

(5) The Reckless Maneuvering of a Warp Drive

A spaceship driven by a warp drive would be awesome, no doubt, but it would also be incredibly dangerous. Any object, like a planet, at the destination point would be subject to massive expenditures of energy.

Also known as an Alcubierre engine, a warp drive could someday work by generating a bubble of negative energy around it. By expanding space and time behind the ship, while squeezing space in front of it, a ship could be pushed to velocities not limited by the speed of light.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Regrettably, however, this energy bubble has the potential to do some serious damage. Back in 2012, a research team crunched the numbers to see what kind of damage an FTL drive of this nature could inflict. Writing in Universe Today, Jason Major explains:

Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team…has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.

When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.

“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”

The researchers added that, even for short journeys, the energy released is so large “you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.” And by anything, that could be an entire planet. Moreover, because the amount of energy is dependent on the length of the journey, there is potentially no limit to its intensity. An incoming warp ship could do considerably more damage than just wreck a planet. ( Image: Mark Rademaker.)

6) An Artificial Wormhole Accident

Using wormholes to sidestep the constraints of interstellar space travel sounds great in theory, but we’ll need to be extra careful when tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.

Back in 2005, Iranian nuclear physicist Mohammad Mansouryar outlined a scheme for creating a traversable wormhole. By producing enough amounts of effective exotic matter, he theorized that we could theoretically pierce a hole through the cosmological fabric of space-time and create a shortcut for spacecraft.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System4

Mansouryar’s paper is opaque, and it’s not immediately clear if he’s onto something, but as Anders Sandberg pointed out to io9, the negative consequences could be severe:

First, wormhole throats need mass-energy (possibly negative) on the scale of a black hole of the same size. Second, making time loops may cause virtual particles to become real and break down the wormhole in an energy cascade. Likely bad for the neighborhood. And besides, dump one end in the Sun and another elsewhere (a laStephen Baxter’s Ring), and you might drain the Sun and/or irradiate the solar system if it is large enough.

Yes, killing the Sun is bad. And by irradiation we’re once again talking about the complete sterilization of the Solar System.

7) A Catastrophic Shkadov Thruster Navigational Error

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Should we choose to relocate our Solar System in the far future, we run the risk of destroying it completely.

In 1987, Russian Physicist Leonid Shkadov proposed a megastructure concept, since dubbed the Shkadov Thruster, that could literally move our solar system and all that’s within it to a neighboring star system. In the future, this would allow us to reject our older, dying star in favor of a younger version.

Writing in Popular Mechanics, Adam Hadhazy explains how it works:

The Shkadov Thruster setup is simple (in theory): It’s just a colossal, arc-shaped mirror, with the concave side facing the sun. Builders would place the mirror at an arbitrary distance where gravitational attraction from the sun is balanced out by the outward pressure of its radiation. The mirror thus becomes a stable, static satellite in equilibrium between gravity’s tug and sunlight’s push.

Solar radiation reflects off the mirror’s inner, curved surface back toward the sun, effectively pushing our star with its own sunlight—the reflected energy produces a tiny net thrust. Voilà, a Shkadov Thruster, and humanity is ready to hit the galactic trail.

What could go wrong, right? Clearly, lots. We could miscalculate and scatter the Solar System to the cosmos, or even smash directly into the other star.

Which brings up an interesting point: If we develop the capacity to move between stars, we should also be able to figure out how to manipulate or influence the plethora of small objects located in the outer reaches of the solar system. We’re definitely going to have to careful here. As Sandberg warns, “Ah, destabilizing the Kuiper belt or Oort cloud: whoops, we got zillions of comets slamming into everything!” ( Image credit: Steve Bowers.)

8) Attracting Evil Aliens

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

If the advocates of Active SETI have their way, we could soon be transmitting messages to space in the hopes of alerting aliens to our presence. You know, because all aliens must be nice. (Image credit: Mars Attacks.)

9) The Return of Mutated von Neumann Probes

Say we send out a fleet of exponentially self-replicating von Neumann probes to colonize the Galaxy. Assuming they’re programmed very, very poorly, or somebody deliberately creates an evolvable probe, they could mutate over time and transform into something quite malevolent.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System5

Eventually, our clever little space-faring devices could come back to haunt us by ripping our Solar System to shreds, or by sucking up resources and pushing valuable life out of existence. (Image: Babylon 5.)

10) An Interplanetary Grey Goo Disaster

Somewhat similar to self-replicating space probes, there’s also the potential for something much smaller, yet equally as dangerous: exponentially replicating nanobots. A grey goo disaster, where an uncontrollable swarm of nanobots or macrobots consume all planetary resources to create more copies of itself, need not be confined to planet Earth. Such a swarm could hitch a ride aboard an escaping spaceship or planetary fragment, or even originate in space as part of some megastructure project. Once unleashed in the Solar System, it would quickly turn everything into mush.

11) An Artificial Superintelligence Run Amok

One of the dangers of creating artificial superintelligence is that it has the potential to do much more than just snuff out life on Earth; it could spread out into the Solar System — and even potentially beyond.

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

The oft-cited paperclip scenario, in which a poorly programmed ASI converts the entire planet into paperclips, conveys the urgency of the problem. Should an out-of-control ASI emerge, it’s obviously not going to produce paperclips ad nauseam, but it could do something else, like produce an endless supply of computer processors or turn all available matter into useable computronium. An ASI may even devise a meta-ethical imperative it feels it must enforce across the entire Galaxy. (Image credit: Stevebidmead/Pixabay/CC.)

12) Making the Solar System Meaningless

12 Ways Humanity Could Destroy The Entire Solar System

Which we would do by going extinct.

Bendable aluminum battery recharges in a minute, won’t burst into flames

stanford_aluminum_battery_01
Everyone is waiting for that revolutionary new battery tech that will replace lithium-ion, drastically increase battery life, and not burst into flames when something goes wrong. A team of scientists have just created such a battery, and they believe it is set to replace both alkaline and lithium-ion batteries.

The team is led by Stanford chemistry professor Honglie Dai. What they have developed is an aluminum and graphite battery and it ticks almost all of the boxes of a desirable battery design. It’s very cheap to make, it won’t burst into flames even if you drill a hole in it, recharge cycles without degradation are in the thousands, and in the form of a typical smartphone battery it will recharge in about a minute. One final revolutionary feature of this battery is the fact it can be bent and shaped without impacting performance.

Aluminum batteries have been attempted before, but this is the first viable one in terms of being a lithium-ion battery replacement. Dai’s battery consists of an aluminum anode, graphite cathode, ionic liquid electrolyte, and a flexible polymer acting as a casing. The reason the battery won’t burst into flames is the fact the electrolyte is just a salt that is liquid at room temperature.

Voltage and energy density is currently about half that of existing lithium-ion batteries, but the team is confident that can be greatly improved by doing further work on the graphite cathode. Where as lithium-ion batteries can be reliably charged around 1,000 times, the prototype aluminum battery already reaches 7,500 cycles. The fact it can be bent and shaped will allow manufacturers to have more flexibility with the design of gadgets such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and smartwatches in the future.

stanford_aluminum_battery_02

It seems all the ingredients are there for a battery that will quickly replace lithium-ion, and the only problem they need to overcome is that of energy density. If they can solve that, which the team is confident it can, we could finally have that revolutionary battery we’ve all been waiting for.

The Many, Many Prices of the Apple Watch

Big or small? Gold, stainless steel, or anodized aluminum? Metal, leather, plastic. So many choices at so many prices. It’s going to be ok. Let’s break it down.

The Apple Watch Sport Edition

The Many, Many Prices of the Apple Watch

  • Anodized aluminum and not gold
  • 60 percent stronger than standard alloy
  • Colors: silver or space gray
  • The cheapest model possible
  • The “Sane” person version

Price: $350 (38mm), $400 (42mm)

Additional costs:

  • Only compatible with the Sport strap ($50) figured in the final cost.

The Apple Watch

The Many, Many Prices of the Apple Watch

  • Stainless steel and also not gold
  • Sapphire glass
  • Colors: polished silver and glossy space black
  • All about the hard metal, 80 percent harder than normal stainless steel
  • For the non-sporty and also the non-Millionaire

Price: $550-$1050 (38mm) and $600-$1100 (42mm)

Additional costs:

  • Sport band: $50
  • Leather loop: $150
  • Classic buckle: $150
  • Milanese loop: $150
  • Modern buckle: $250
  • Link Bracelet: $450
  • It doesn’t matter what size band, all prices are the same.
  • It would seem whatever initial band you choose is figured into the price

The Apple Watch Edition

The Many, Many Prices of the Apple Watch

  • Yes, this is the 18-karat gold one
  • For the Mr./Mrs. Moneybags in your life
  • Uses special Apple-created gold material
  • Will be a limited edition and only in select countries

Price: $10,000-$17,000 (in select stores, also holy shit)

Additional costs:

Read more about the bling-bling Apple Watch right here.

Don’t know if 38mm or 42mm is a better fit for your wrist? Apple’s got a sizing got for you. You can pre-order your own watch starting April 10 and will be available in stores starting April 24 in the US, UK, Australia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, and France.

So…which one are you getting (if any)?

Apple Watch Meta Review: Not Perfect, But Full of Potential

Apple Watch Meta Review: Not Perfect, But Full of Potential

The Apple Watch won’t be on your wrist until this Friday at the earliest, but the first reviews of Apple’s new wrist computer are just coming in.

The verdict? It’s not a perfect product. It has some first generation flaws, and other quirks. There’s a bit of a learning curve. And you probably shouldn’t buy one. But. But! It’s the best smartwatch out there and just oozes potential.

And by all accounts, yes, the Apple Watch battery can make it through the average day, if only just barely.

CNET:

I’ve been using the Apple Watch for a week. I’ve worn it on my wrist every day, doing everything possible that I could think of. I’ve tracked walks and measured my heart rate, paid for lunch, listened to albums while exploring parks without my phone, chatted with family, kept up on email, looked for Ubercars, kept up on news, navigated on long car trips for Passover, controlled my Apple TV with it and followed baseball games while I was supposed to be watching my 2-year-old.

The watch is beautiful and promising — the most ambitious wearable that exists. But in an attempt to do everything in the first generation, the Apple Watch still leaves plenty to be desired. Short battery life compared with other watches and higher prices are the biggest flags for now. But Apple is just setting sail, and it has a long journey ahead.

Geoffrey Fowler at the Wall Street Journal:

This description may either strike you as helpful or oppressive. It has made me more present. I’m less likely to absent-mindedly reach for my phone, or feel compelled to leave it on the table during supper.

With the Apple Watch, smartwatches finally make sense. The measure of their success shouldn’t be how well they suck you in, but how efficiently they help you get things done. Living on your arm is part of that efficiency—as a convenient display, but also a way to measure your heart rate or pay at a cash register. This is a big idea about how we use technology, the kind of idea we expect from Apple.

Joanna Stern at the Wall Street Journal:

After over a week of living with Apple’s latest gadget on my wrist, I realized the company isn’t just selling some wrist-worn computer, it’s selling good looks and coolness, with some bonus computer features. Too many features that are too hard to find, if you ask me.

… There are so many things the watch can do, so many menus and features you must spend time figuring out, that for better or worse, you end up shaping your own experience.

… Unless you opt for the cheapest $350 sport version, you should really wait for the future.

The New York Times:

The Apple Watch is far from perfect, and, starting at $350 and going all the way up to $17,000, it isn’t cheap. Though it looks quite smart, with a selection of stylish leather and metallic bands that make for a sharp departure from most wearable devices, the Apple Watch works like a first-generation device, with all the limitations and flaws you’d expect of brand-new technology.

… Still, even if it’s not yet for everyone, Apple is on to something with the device. The Watch is just useful enough to prove that the tech industry’s fixation on computers that people can wear may soon bear fruit. In that way, using the Apple Watch over the last week reminded me of using the first iPhone. Apple’s first smartphone was revolutionary not just because it did what few other phones could do, but also because it showed off the possibilities of a connected mobile computer.

The Verge:

The Apple Watch is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus.

There’s no question that the Apple Watch is the most capable smartwatch available today. It is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus: it can do tiny bits of everything, instead of a few things extraordinarily well. For all of its technological marvel, the Apple Watch is still a smartwatch, and it’s not clear that anyone’s yet figured out what smartwatches are actually for.

Bloomberg Business:

The Apple Watch can certainly make you a worse dinner guest. But it can also make you a slightly better one. The difference is whether or not you’re willing to think about what really matters vs. what seems to matter.

The watch is not life-changing. It is, however, excellent. Apple will sell millions of these devices, and many people will love and obsess over them. It is a wonderful component of a big ecosystem that the company has carefully built over many years. It is more seamless and simple than any of its counterparts in the marketplace. It is, without question, the best smartwatch in the world.

Re/Code:

Some people have already decided they’re getting Apple Watch on the day it comes out. Because they love Apple. Because they like new things and being the first to buy them. Because there has been so much hype around this product.

But Apple Watch is not a cure-all, and it’s likely not a timepiece you will pass down to your grandkids. It is a well-designed piece of technology that will go through a series of software updates, until one day, years from now, when the lithium ion battery can no longer hold much of a charge and it won’t seem as valuable to you.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

By Dr. Todd Jochem

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

(Think Delphi’s cross-country voyage in an autonomous Audi SQ5 is impressive? Try doing it with 90s tech, without GPS navigation, and in a salvaged Pontiac minivan. That’s what Carnegie Mellon research scientist Dean Pomerleau and then-Ph.D. student Todd Jochem did in 1995. Here’s the story of their journey as it appeared on Robotics Trends. — PG)

For the past several years, self-driving cars have been prominently featured in mainstream media outlets. Great technology and future plans from organizations such as Stanford University, Google, various car manufacturers, and more recently Uber and Delphi, have been showcased.

It is with great intellectual interest, pride, perspective, and a fair bit of humor that I have read about these recent “firsts” for autonomous vehicles.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

Why? Because July 23, 2015, will be the 20th anniversary of “No Hands Across America,” the first long-duration field test of a self-driving car. I was fortunate to be part of the ragtag team from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute that built the car and was a passenger on the cross-country trip from Washington, D.C., to San Diego, Calif.

After two decades of technology development and societal acclimatization in the area of robotics and self-driving cars, it’s amazing how much has changed—and, really, how much has stayed the same.

I thought it might be interesting to share some comments on that time, our trip across the country, and what has and hasn’t changed between then and now.

Today’s self-driving cars are so stylish

I’m jealous of the stylishness and integration of the most recent self-driving cars—luxury brands and cool little special-purpose cars. We used a minivan that had plastic side panels and cloth seats. But it was better than nothing.

We owe a huge thanks to Ashok Ramaswamy—a visionary engineering manager at Delco (predecessor to Delphi)—who cut through monumental red tape and salvaged a Pontiac Transport minivan from the junk heap and “donated” it to us to use as we saw fit.

We built the vehicle and software over about a four-month time frame for under $20,000. We had one computer, the equivalent of a 486DX2 (look that one up), a 640×480 color camera, a GPS receiver, and a fiber-optic gyro.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

It’s funny to think that we didn’t use the GPS for position, but rather to determine speed.

In those days, GPS Selective Availability was still on, meaning you couldn’t get high-accuracy positioning cheaply. And if you could, there were no maps to use it with! But, GPS speed was better than nothing, and it meant we didn’t have to wire anything to the car hardware, so we used it.

Software challenges

In late 1994, Dean Pomerleau had pushed his ALVINN neural network lane tracking software about as far as it could go, but there were limitations with training speed and performance that he felt prevented it from getting to the next level—superior performance across all road types in all weather and lighting conditions.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

As the vehicle moves along, a video camera mounted just below the rearview mirror reads the roadway, imaging information including lane markings, oil spots, curbs, and even ruts made in snow by car wheels. The camera sends the image to a portable computer between the car’s front seats that processes the data and instructs an electric motor on the steering wheel to turn right or left.

The driving system runs on the PANS (Portable Advanced Navigation Support) hardware platform. The platform provides a computing base and input/output functions for the system, as well as position estimation, steering wheel control, and safety monitoring. It’s powered from the vehicle’s cigarette lighter and is completely portable.

But inspiration hit Pomerleau on how to go forward while he and Chuck Thorpe were driving down the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm after a DARPA “meeting.” The insight, which is still proprietary, was enough to make him junk ALVINN immediately and start over.

From around January 1995 to April or May 1995, he built a new system called RALPH (Rapidly Adapting Lateral Position Handler) that quickly equaled ALVINN’s performance—at least on local roads.

But to truly test the system, more roads were needed. And that was when the plan to drive across the U.S. was hatched. Quickly dubbed “No Hands Across America”—mainly because it was a nice play on the “Hands Across America” movement to combat hunger and poverty—the plan was to drive I-70 from Washington, D.C., to I-15 in Utah, then south to San Diego.

From May until when we left on July 23, 1995, time was spent refining the technology, planning the stops along the route, getting approval (I think) from CMU’s board of trustees, and getting sponsorships and fundraising to pay the tab.

Since there was no real sponsor for the trip (no one in their right mind would pay for something this crazy), we had to supplement the little money we got from CMU’s discretionary accounts with free equipment.

As noted above, Delco provided the car, while the computer, GPS, and gyro were all donated to us in exchange for a sticker on the side of the minivan. For gas and spending money, we sold trip T-shirts. I’m not kidding. They were $10 apiece and helped pay for food and hotels. Seriously.

Not sure if the NASCAR model of fundraising (car decals and T-shirts) has been used since then for robotics.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

You can read the trip journal for more details, but suffice it to say that we learned more on that seven day trip than the entire research community may have learned in seven years. We also had a ton of fun. From renewing marriage vows in Las Vegas in a self-driving car, to seeing a six-legged cow at Prairie Dog Town, to driving across Hoover Dam autonomously, to meeting Jay Leno, it was a trip for the ages.

And perhaps the highlight was when Otis Port, a writer for Business Week who was doing a story on the trip (read the story here), was pulled over by a Kansas State Trooper—as we sped by with our hands off the wheel.

While I’ll admit to a strong bias, I think Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh was the center of technical excellence in self-driving cars. Beginning in the 1980s and 90s with the NavLabproject, CMU has led the development or trained the people who have been at the forefront of this technology.

Initially, it was Kanade, Whitaker, Thorpe, and Pomerleau. Under those pioneers in the field, the next generation of technology and thought leaders like Sebastian Thrun (Stanford), J.O. Urmson, and Astro Teller (Google) were trained.

They Drove Cross-Country In An Autonomous Minivan Without GPS. In 1995.

And it’s clear that CMU remains at the center of the self-driving car universe even now, withUber’s decision to locate self-driving car research in Pittsburgh and to essentially in-house CMU’s brainpower, and finally, Delphi’s drive across the country powered by—you guessed it—a CMU spin-out company called Ottomatika that is based in Pittsburgh.

I was lucky to be at the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It’s not often in life that the right circumstances are in place to do something that no one had ever done before. When we did the trip, the field was about discovery and expanding technical frontiers.

I think it still is now, but unfortunately, it’s now also about patent fights, liability concerns, and state laws. (If you’re ever in doubt about your patent, just assume it was done at CMU between 1985-1997 – you’ll save a lot of money!)

Those were the good old days, I guess!

This article first appeared on Robotics Trends, and its text and photos have been republished here with permission.

Click here for more information about “No Hands Across America,” including the trip journal, pictures, and description of the vehicle.


Dr. Jochem is a robotics, unmanned systems, and technology professional interested in entrepreneurship and technology creation in robotics and related business sectors. He is currently a consultant to small technology businesses. Before his business career, Jochem was a systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and a 1997 recipient of CMU’s Allan Newell Award for Research Excellence.

A blog about Technology, Video Games, Cars, Trends, that I almost forgot to tweet about

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